- accident - Belgium - Switzerland
Belgium mourns victims of bus crash in Swiss Alps
Belgium observed a minute of silence during a national day of mourning on Friday for the 28 victims, including 22 children, killed in a Tuesday night bus crash as they returned from a skiing trip in the Swiss Alps.
AFP - Belgians observed a minute of silence and church bells tolled across the grieving nation Friday as the bodies of 22 children and six adults killed in a Swiss coach crash were flown home.
Soldiers carried small white coffins out of two military planes after they landed near Brussels, a day after parents undertook the traumatic task of identifying their children in Switzerland and visited the crash site.
As Swiss officials sought to find the cause of Tuesday night's accident, children, parents and teachers clutched hands in the courtyards of two schools in Heverlee and Lommel during a national day of mourning.
With flags flying at half-mast, Belgians everywhere held a minute of silence at 11:00 am (1000 GMT) before church bells rang in remembrance of the young victims whose deaths have shocked the nation.
Broadcasters went quiet while drivers of buses, metros and trains switched off their engines for a minute as Belgium coped with an outpouring of grief for children who were no older than 11 or 12.
In the central town of Heverlee, pupils released white balloons as adults sobbed days after a bus carrying 46 children, four teachers and two drivers slammed into an Alpine tunnel wall as they returned from a week-long ski trip.
"It is very important to feel like we are all united," said Marie Pia, a mother of three who lives near Heverlee's Sint-Lambertus school. "Today, the north and the south of Belgium are united."
Six of the 24 children injured in the horrific accident returned home overnight. Fourteen others were to return later Friday while four of the children were in too grave a condition to leave Swiss hospitals.
The coffins of the 28 victims were escorted back to their hometowns.
The dead include 22 Belgian nationals and six Dutch children. One of the children had dual British-Belgian nationality.
In the Netherlands, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said his "entire cabinet feels the same: shock, powerlessness and especially deep compassion for all those affected".
Flowers, teddy bears, candles and notes have been left by well-wishers at the gates of the two Catholic primary schools in Heverlee and Lommel, located near the Dutch border.
In Lommel, where 15 of the 22 young victims studied, children, teachers and parents began a minute of silence that continued for five minutes. Two members of school staff also died in the accident.
The toll at the 't Stekske school of around 200 children, whose name means "the little matchstick" in Dutch, was particularly high, apparently because this group was seated at the front of the bus when it hit the wall head-on.
"The whole town, the whole province, all of Belgium supports the families of the victims. It's very important," said a teary Dirk De Vroede, 54.
Members of the Belgian and Dutch royal families were invited by the parents of the victims to memorial ceremonies in both towns next Wednesday.
Back in Switzerland, investigators sought to unravel the cause of the tragedy, with news reports saying the bus driver had tried to play a DVD shortly before the crash, suggesting a "moment of distraction" may be to blame.
This claim was rejected by the man's employer and dismissed as speculation by Swiss police.
After police said they did not believe the driver had been speeding, Swiss authorities said there would be a rethink about safety designs in the 2.5-kilometre (1.5-mile) tunnel.
It is believed that the coach clipped a kerb before it slammed into the wall of a rectangular emergency stop area.
A 100 kilometre (60-mile) per hour speed limit was also questioned by the press.